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Submitted by Cindi Trainor on November 2, 2010 - 8:31am

EmpathyThere is a lot of talk of FAIL these days; two-thirds of the “Innovation, Risk & Failure” track of last week’s Internet Librarian 2010 conference was dedicated to failure. Afterward, attendees put together a website dedicated to sharing library failures. I agree it’s very important to learn from our mistakes in libraries, but I also think that failure that we really learn from can’t be captured in a snapshot or without the context of the risk in which it took place. There is a human dimension that can be left out in those snapshots.

Everything we do is trial and error, whether in libraries or in life. Every project, every interaction has the potential for failure; luckily, what most of us focus on is the potential for success. Maybe the word “failure” makes me uncomfortable; in thinking about projects that I’ve worked on, I can point out things that didn’t work, things that had to be done twice, things that took too long to accomplish or simply didn’t get done. I would not label these failures, though, but obstacles that were worked through and either addressed or (gulp) lived with. As long as I am a good listener and dynamic about addressing and communicating the issues, is this approach wrong? I like to think it’s not.

Libraries are one of the most quickly-changing industries in the country, and probably one of the most threatened, though we mostly aren’t admitting it. We are pulled constantly by market forces, shifting user needs, and technology that outpaces us in spite of our considerable innovation. The library that does not respond to this change and to the mistakes that it inevitably makes in its wake is an endangered library. It’s a library without empathy that is not connecting with or serving its community and therefore failing in its mission. Hey, there’s that F-word again.

That said, failure hurts. We are taught from an early age that to make a mistake is to have done something wrong, and that people who do wrong get punished. Libraries busy celebrating their failures cannot forget that those mistakes stem from human action (and interaction) and should be addressed with kindness. Every time someone posts to twitter about a bone-headed user comment or blogs about their library’s crazy rules that address a single problem patron, we all must remember that it was another human being who took that misstep, and that in all likelihood, he or she is a good person who is doing his or her best. That person deserves to tell his or her side of the story and to put that mistake in the past and move on.

There is nothing wrong with pointing out failures as long as it’s done without mockery. There's a difference between saying "look at these idiots and their stupid policy" and finding something wrong in a library and understanding that this is something that librarians can collectively improve. Owning your own mistakes is one thing, but the cry of “FAIL!” can be driven by meanness and only serves to make those who made the mistake feel small. Snide invective may attract a lot of viewers or readers--and it might even make us feel smart or superior--but at the end of the day, it’s our kindnesses that make us human.

Photo: “Empathy” CC:by-nc-sa courtesy flickr user TonZ

Comments (6)

As the moderator of the

As the moderator of the Internet Librarian Failure track, I'd like to just jump in here for a wee bit. Agreed that dwelling on blaming people or highlighting out all the ridiculous bureaucratic barriers, and similar finger pointing is not at all helpful to us. The Failure track speakers were asked to do two things: keep it light + focus on *what you learned* instead of the rote details of the failure itself. I think that's what made the track successful, in my opinion. I'd like to see more discussions like this taking place in libraries and all other organizations, as long as they are done in the spirit of learning and not griping.

Anonymous, you make excellent

Anonymous, you make excellent points. *Librarians* and the profession of librarianship have been slow to change in many sectors, but the industry surrounding us changes daily in spite of that. For me, the phrase "library industry" includes publishers of books, journals, music, movies, and games, as well as the business of collecting, finding, and creating information. The list of businesses and organizations that exhibit at ALA corroborates. Stating it as I did in the post was a little narrow, I think. Thanks for helping me clarify.

In thinking about the library school students I know (granted, I work in a progressive library and tend to gravitate to the tech-friendly at conferences and online), they are more tech-savvy than not. It's second nature to a lot of them. They are curious and outgoing and passionate about service. But there is largely nowhere for them to go in this economy.

>Libraries are one of the

>Libraries are one of the most
>quickly-changing industries
>in the country

I beg to differ. We are actually very slow as a profession to make major, long-needed changes (ex. MARC records are still around). Some individual libraries have adapted well, but the face of libraries in general is still an old, weary one.

The problem is not with trying new things and having them "fail." That's just market testing, not failure. The problem is that we continue to pump out new grad school students who have very low rates of technology literacy and (for the most part) don't have the drive to learn it on their own time.

The biggest problem is that the type of people who are attracted to librarianship are not (overall) the type of folks who enjoy staying on top of new technologies, market trends, etc. There are some who do a great job of this, some who stubbornly refuse to learn anything new, and a whole ton of librarians who only learn enough to barely get by.

We don't need to change our image or spend the next year talking about the things we need to get to (eventually). We need to start attracting more dynamic, tech-friendly personalities to our profession and change it from within.

Yes! Being paralyzed by fear

Yes! Being paralyzed by fear of failure *should* be the goal of sharing one's own mistakes. We fail, we live, we try again. Thanks for pointing that out.

I'll add the link to the post, too--sorry about that. #cindifail

Andy, the Fail Library site

Andy, the Fail Library site is here

It's not so much that failure was a goal, or that obstacles were not overcome, but it is an acknowledgement that everyone fails (just like everyone poops) and it is nothing to be embarrassed about. Some people are so afraid of something failing that they don't even try and we need to get past that. That should be one of the major takeaways from the event. If we are too scared to try then we will never get anywhere.

It's possible to get dragged down by too much context. These failure stories aren't complicated. The characters, technology, and bureaucracy are similar not just in any library, but any organization.

I also doubt the failure website will get much action. There is a failure site on the library success wiki that it noticeably absent. I also remember the Work Like a Patron Day concept by Brian Herzog that didn't gain traction. People are too uncomfortable with their failures, they dwell on them too much, but not in a constructive way. They say to themselves that they are an idiot, too stupid, and they are too scared. The fear paralyzes them. I hope this track breaks some of that paralysis.

> Afterward, attendees put

> Afterward, attendees put together a website dedicated to sharing library failures.

A link to the website would be helpful... thanks.